Behind the Scenes With TV Star Austin Basis
An inside look at managing diabetes on the set of “Beauty and the Beast”
In the age of social media, when a TV show is staring cancellation in the eye, the fans take up arms. They flood Twitter with their support for the show. Put their money where their mouths are by buying the products of the program’s advertisers. And sometimes, amazingly, it works.
Fans of Beauty and the Beast, which has yet to be renewed for a third season, are hoping to do the same. The self-proclaimed “Beasties” have been tweeting advertisers thanks for dollars spent on commercials during the show. Fans are also opening their wallets in a campaign to show producers how much they love the CW drama. And people with diabetes may reap the benefits of the fandom’s love: Supporters have raised more than $15,000 for diabetes research.
The cause isn’t arbitrary. Austin Basis, who plays lovable and levelheaded J.T. Forbes on the show, has had type 1 diabetes since he was 9 years old. Back then, Basis, now 37, was an active kid with dreams of someday playing baseball for the New York Mets. The Brooklyn native put the dream on hold, but not because of his diabetes diagnosis. It didn’t take long for Basis to realize his talents lay elsewhere—on the stage and in front of the camera.
By the time he hit college, Basis was a theater regular and had decided to pursue an acting career. He earned his master of fine arts at the famed Actors Studio and then, as all struggling actors eventually do, set about working as many odd jobs as he could: busboy, bartender, bouncer, waiter, and substitute teacher.
After bit roles, Basis landed the part of Math Rogers on the CW drama Life Unexpected, which ran for two seasons before it ended in 2011. A year later, Basis got the role of Beauty and the Beast’s J.T., brainiac, best friend to super-soldier Vincent, and the show’s comedic relief.
Just as his acting has evolved over the years, so has Basis’s understanding of his diabetes. “I think it’s a little more like second nature at this point,” says Basis. That doesn’t mean he has everything figured out. As an actor, Basis’s life is in a state of flux, and as a result he constantly adjusts his diabetes management.
Frequent travel means Basis needs to account for varying time zones when considering insulin delivery, mealtimes, and exercise schedules. “Those are new factors that always keep me on my toes,” he says. As do other aspects of working on a TV series, such as where the show is being filmed. “[On location], your trailers aren’t right by where you’re shooting,” he says. So instead of stashing all of his diabetes supplies in his nearby trailer while filming, as he does on set, Basis brings a travel case of supplies.
To minimize the number of items he needs to cart around, he relies on a meter with a disk of test strips. “I only have to change it once every two days,” Basis says. “I can test my blood sugar within 10 seconds. It’s much more conducive to my schedule.” He generally checks his blood glucose when he wakes up, at the studio before shooting begins, before lunch and dinner, and a few other times during the day—an average of about seven blood glucose tests during a long shoot and four or five on shorter days.
Basis is also meticulous about checking his blood glucose before getting behind the wheel. “Even with the control I have over my blood sugar, I still get those highs and lows now and again,” he says. And he prepares for unexpected lows. “You get on the road and you’re fine; then you start to experience signs your blood sugar is low, whether it’s sweating or vision stuff, and you have to figure out—while you’re low—where you can pull over to find snacks,” he adds, so he always stashes carb sources in the car.
Experience has given Basis an understanding of what makes his blood glucose drop or soar, but when it comes to keeping his levels within his target range, he credits technology—namely, the insulin pump he’s been using for the past 15 years.
The device is small enough that it’s easy to hide while filming. “Thankfully, I don’t have shirtless scenes too often,” Basis says. Sometimes all it takes is some shifting around of his infusion set. “Last week I had a scene where I had a shirt with really short sleeves and my pump was showing. I was using [my arm as an] infusion site. We made the decision to change the infusion site. We broke for 10 minutes so I could move the infusion site to my thigh.”
The pump offers flexibility daily injections don’t, and that comes in handy when Basis is facing down a 12-hour day with scheduled meal breaks six hours apart. And while meal timing doesn’t trip him up as it used to when he was a kid on multiple daily injections, Basis says eating on set poses a different sort of challenge. “Part of being on set is not being tempted too much to eat craft service [catered meals],” he says. “There’s food always there.” And craft service is notorious for supplying unhealthy eats such as doughnuts and pastries.
Most days, Basis’s commitment to his health pushes him to favor meals such as egg whites or a smoothie for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and chicken with a salad for dinner. As much as he tries to eat fresh foods, Basis admits he prefers foods with nutrition information on the package because it lets him know exactly how many carbs are included. For everything else, well, “it’s something of an educated guessing game,” he says.
Another major component in Basis’s healthy lifestyle is exercise. The actor keeps active with regular walks and hikes with his wife. There were few of those this winter, when icy temps in Toronto, where he’s filming Beauty and the Beast, kept Basis indoors. To stay fit (and keep his blood glucose in range), Basis takes a boxing boot camp once or twice a week, lifts weights, works out on an elliptical trainer, and has begun incorporating yoga into his exercise schedule.
Unless he’s simply going for a walk, Basis disconnects from his pump before exercising to prevent hypoglycemia (experts recommend disconnecting for no longer than one hour). But dips in his blood glucose are harder to predict and prevent when he’s active on set. If a scene calls for his character to be sweaty, for instance, Basis forgoes a quick mist of water for real, exercise-induced sweat. “For those scenes, I’ll have to be careful,” he says. “[Low blood glucose] will happen within a take. I’ll feel that lightheadedness.”
Safety’s a major concern, so Basis always makes sure there are people on set who know about his diabetes and can help him if he goes low. His choice for fast-acting glucose: apple juice. He feels that glucose tablets or orange juice affect his speech when he jumps back into filming.
Actor and Advocate
There are plenty of upsides to fame, none more important to Basis than the influence actors wield. He’s using it to his advantage, bringing awareness to diabetes and the impact it has on people’s lives. While filming in Canada, he stays active in the diabetes community. He’s worked on events with JDRF in Toronto and lobbied in Ottawa for additional research funding for diabetes. And, of course, there’s the Beasties’ fund-raiser to extend the show.
How that will shake out is yet unclear. (At press time, the network had yet to make a decision on whether Beauty and the Beast will be renewed for a third season, but the show returns for this season on June 2.) Regardless of the outcome, the campaign will have been a success, raising both money for and awareness of the disease.
That, for Basis, is the ultimate goal. “I made [my diabetes] a point when I got the role of J.T. on Beauty and the Beast,” he says. “That is one of the things I wanted to be real about. There’s hope for a normal life and a normal career, and [people] don’t need to look at their diabetes diagnosis as an impediment to realizing their dreams.”